International House, billed in its day as The Grand Hotel of comedy, found Eddie Sutherland directing a cast headed by W.C. Fields, Burns and Allen, and Bela Lugosi, with top bill actually going to socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce in what was the final film of her sporadic movie career.
The films’ everyman is played by Stuart Erwin who’s engaged to Sari Maritza’s character, but chronically ill as the altar approaches. He also has a funny scene traveling with the golddigging Joyce, when she reveals her character: Peggy Hopkins Joyce.
What plot there is centers around Doctor Wong’s radioscope invention, a prototype television which injects a totally separate variety show throughout International House with skits featuring Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd (a popular radio act of the 30’s), then radio star Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie (who you probably know better all grown up as Sally Rogers on the Dick Van Dyke show), and Cab Calloway stealing the show with a quick and energetic performance of “Reefer Man.”
Doctor Wong (Edmund Breese) is at the International House hotel in fictional Wu Hu, China to show off his invention to investors. Lugosi’s Russian General, who also happens to be a jealous ex-husband of the oft-married Joyce, covets the radioscope, but Doctor Wong is convinced his top prospect is Fields’ Professor Quail, who has really just wound up in Wu Hu by accident of the bottle.
While Burns and Allen, as the Hotel’s doctor and nurse, are given quite a few scenes that they handle as expected, International House is really Fields’ movie. It’s the picture where Fields finally clicked with audiences and it landed him a big contract with Paramount who had released him from a previous deal a few years before. Personally, it’s the funniest I’ve seen W.C. Fields.
International House, a pre-code Paramount film, plays a bit bluer than the later Fields pictures and succeeded in riling up the Hays Office which called for 6 cuts, one of which was made. In addition the censors denied any recollection of Fields’ “It’s a pussy” line and insisted that it had been added in by Paramount after the fact. With the code being strictly enforced by the middle of 1934, it was tough luck for Paramount in 1935 when they sought approval for a re-release of International House. Code Administration head Joseph Breen noted that the picture was “filled with gross vulgarities in both action and dialogue” and that was that—no re-release.
While Burns and, especially, Allen, are not my cup of tea, they did share an excellent scene with the hotel manager, played by Franklin Pangborn, when the two men quizzed Gracie in rapid fire fashion and she frustrated them with her typical fast but infuriating replies. Gracie also shared a fun scene with Fields which gave him the opportunity to deliver a couple of killer barbs, my favorite of which: “What’s the penalty for murder in China?” an aside directed at Gracie who’s almost immediately exasperated the recently arrived Fields.
International House also features a bizarre musical performance that played like Busby Berkeley on a slightly off day, though that’s not to say it wasn’t fun! Sterling Holloway is the mug in "She Was a China Tea-cup and He Was Just a Mug,” while 18-year-old Lona Andre played the tea-cup and about a half dozen other chorines dressed as other table settings. Holloway, who the IMDb credits with 19 movie appearances in 1933 alone (and I’d bet there were more—he’s everywhere!), gives his mug every bit of his energy and enthusiasm, though I must say that row-boat move of his was a bit awkward.
Perhaps because of the radioscope interrupting International House feels a bit more hodgepodge than it really is. In the end we want to walk away knowing if Doctor Wong could find investors for his invention; can Stu Erwin overcome his illnesses and commit to Sari Maritza; and will Peggy Hopkins Joyce find that next millionaire husband? And after all the laughter International House does succeed in answering all of the story’s most pressing questions.